Where Does Unstable Surface Training Fit In? (Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee)

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Q: I’ve frequently read that unstable surface training in a non rehabilitate setting isn’t of that much use, particularly due to the fact that the increased muscle recruitment doesn’t necessarily become functional in other athletic activities.

Im curious where stir the pot comes into all this?

I certainly get great anterior core recruitment but am curious if this will carry over to athletics and other lifts?

What makes the stability ball usage in stir the pot different from that of doing 100 squats on a bosu ball? 

A:  That’s actually a really great question, but something I feel doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation.  For starters, for those not in the know, generally speaking, when most people hear the word “unstable surface training” many will quickly defer to your garden variety items such as stability balls, BOSU balls, wobble boards, and other (borderline) nefarious gadgets that are (often, not always) marketed as the panacea of everything awesome.

If you believe the hype, unstable surface training will do everything from helping to improve your balance to increased muscle activation (particularly in your core) to shaving off a few dress sizes to improving whateverthef***.

Just what she needs: more knee valgus! (<— note heavy sarcasm)

About the only thing unstable surface training can’t do is wash the dishes and solve our national debt.

If I had to describe my general thoughts pertaining to unstable surface training I’d more than likely do it in an interpretive fashion like this:

Which isn’t to say that I’ll dismiss it altogether.  There is some efficacy towards its use – and as you noted it’s namely in the rehabilitative setting when we’re working with athletes or clients coming off an injury and we’re trying to reestablish proper motor patterns, work on muscle activation, or otherwise reintroduce (and progress) them to external loading.

Unfortunately, at some point within the last decade (give or take), a bunch of personal trainers and coaches decided it would be a good idea to take data extrapolated from the physical therapy realm – and in particular data used with INJURED patients – and apply it with their healthy clients.  You know, to be functional and stuff.

The end result was (and has been) anything but ho-hum.  Instead of people actually doing something of relevance – like actually being able to do a push-up correctly, or being able to perform a hip hinge or lunge pattern without making my eyes bleed – we have a bunch of people doing things like 1-legged curls on BOSU balls, and trainers – in an effort to look unique and different – wasting people’s time (not to mention money) by doing shit like this:

I’ll concede that it looks impressive, and I’d if I were going to speak candidly I’d probably have a better shot of tossing a touchdown pass to He-Man in the next Super Bowl than being able to do it myself.

But that’s beside the point.  For healthy individuals who are looking to get bigger, faster, stronger, leaner, prevent injuries, increase power, move better, wrestle a grizzly, be able to say the alphabet backwards, or be able to wear white past Labor Day, unstable surface training is not the answer.

My business partner, Eric Cressey, actually wrote an entire book on the topic titled The Truth About Unstable Surface Training, which delves into how its use, application, and efficacy has been overtly saturating the fitness world for the wrong reasons.

Likewise, given the main “argument” for those who advocate unstable surface training is to help improve one’s balance, I’d encourage you to read John Kiefer’s article, Unstable Surface for Stability Training (AKA Clown School).

The fact of the matter is, the floor works just fine….and unstable surface training probably does more for DECREASING athleticism, strength, balance and movement quality than it helps.

Stealing a section from Keifer’s article:

Think about when you step onto an icy or oily surface. You instantly tense up, you almost literally can’t perform certain movements because the nervous system senses the instability of the environment and fires in resistant ways to keep you balanced. In this process, it also shuts down the ability to produce maximum force (your strength, power, hypertrophy and speed all go down the shitter. Think about it, if you start to slip in one direction and your reflexes caused your muscles to fire with maximum force against that motion—a motion that may be inevitable at that point, like falling—then you risk tearing muscle or connective tissue. The body is trying to protect you by making you weaker.

Which brings us to Stir-the-Pot.

This exercise in of itself constitutes as “unstable surface training,” and like I said above….I don’t dismiss it altogether.  We actually do employ a decent amount of this type of training into our programs at Cressey Performance – albeit not in the context that will make you want to punch a hole in the wall.

Since we work with a crap-load of baseball players, one drill we like to use to help increase rotator cuff activation is a bottoms-up 1-arm kettlebell carry:

Since we’re currently on that side of the fence, we incorporate bottoms-up variations with things like DB presses, 1-arm bulgarian split squats, and Turkish get-ups.

Something to consider, however, is this is in conjunction with movements like squats, deadlifts, rows, chin-ups, hip thrusts, and the like which are done on STABLE surfaces and which help to get people strong.

With regards to the stir-the-pot, I simply see this as:

1.  A great way to train the anterior core.

2.  A great way to “progress” the plank. I find it comical that people brag about how long they can hold a plank for – the longest I’ve heard is 17 minutes – when I KNOW that all they’re doing is hanging on their lower back and hip flexors in order to get the job done, which isn’t doing them any favors.

I find a lot of validity with planks and their numerous variations – especially when working with someone with chronic low back issues (as the name of the game is spinal stability/endurance, and teaching neutral spine) – but there comes a point where there’s a rate of diminishing returns, especially when people make them into a dick measuring contest.

I don’t know what the female equivalent would be here:  high-heel measuring contest?????

Either way I’d much rather make planks more challenging than longer, for the sake of making them longer.  Can you think of anything more boring?  I mean, outside of NASCAR is there anything?

And besides, this isn’t the type of exercise that opens itself to “repetition” anyways.  The objective isn’t to do them for “100 reps” as compared to the “100 squats on a BOSU ball” comment from the original question.  Instead, the objective is to learn to recruit and engage the anterior core and RESIST extension.  This is all about QUALITY of movement – and not compensating – than it is about QUANTITY.

To that end, I do feel this is an exercise that will help to improve performance – albeit not under the guise that I feel it’s because you’ve somehow improved your balance or recruitment of anything.

Wrapping Up

Again, this isn’t to insinuate that unstable surface training should be avoided at all costs – there’s ABSOLUTELY a time and place for it’s inclusion in a program.  However, I do feel that it’s WOEFULLY overrated, overused, and quite frankly a waste of time for most healthy individuals who walk into a weight room to get better.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Brian

    Stability training totally has a use. Tells you very quickly which trainers to avoid. :)

    November 26, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Ben Cameron

    Bugger, was hoping to incorporate it into some sort of plyometric for getting ready for my surfing break. No good then?

    November 26, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      I wouldn't go that far Ben. Like I stated in the post, it DOES have a time and place....I just feel that overall it's woefully overemphasized. In your case, adding in some as part of a pre-training warm-up or part of your plyo circuit won't be the end of the world. Since you're reading this site I assume the "bulk" of your training consists of stable ground training placing an emphasis on the big boys: squats, deadlifts, etc. Those will (and always will) be the backbone of improving performance. What gets my goat is when people (or trainers) pawn off unstable surface training as superior for improving strength,power, agility, etc.....when the research (and real world application) have repeatedly shown otherwise.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:23 am | Reply to this comment

  • natcha

    Love this post. Still can't get over hilarity of the 200+ lbs guy I keep seeing in the gym who squats on 2 bosu balls while pressing 2 15 lbs dumbbells. Even I could press twice that weight. If only that was a big box gym and I could approach him to sell seshs... lol. The balls do have their place in the gym though, just not as base of support. It's disturbing that the girl who stands on the stability ball has over 10k views and people are thanking her for her stuff. I wonder how many of those 10k actually fall on their faces and break their noses.

    November 26, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      That's a good question Natcha. Apparently there's a high demand for this kind of "fluffy" stuff. I think the big reason is that people get bored and feel they HAVE to liven things up a bit. But the truth is: the boring stuff is what works!

      November 27, 2013 at 7:24 am | Reply to this comment

      • natcha

        Yea. I notice that since I started "the boring stuff" I could snowboard much better. Just wondering, how do you train snowboarding athletes to make them better at it?

        November 27, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Reply to this comment

        • TonyGentilcore

          Honestly: since most spend a bulk of their time ont he snow, I'd be more apt to just focus on getting them stronger, HAMMER core stabilization (anti-rotation, rotary training), and in terms of any sport specific training - I'd just rely on their practice time on the snow take care of that.

          November 28, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Pedro

    What would you say about unstable surface training for a curler? Probably wouldn't use a stability ball, but bosu and airex pad might be great?

    November 26, 2013 at 10:50 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tim

    Thanks Tony! Great article!

    November 27, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Robert Aguero-Hoffman

    I'm so sick and tired of watching trainers use "Unstable Surface Training" as their crutch/gimmick to hide the fact they suck at their job. Makes my eyeballs bleed!

    November 27, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Link love #2 | I need muscles

    […] Where does unstable surface training fit in? via Tony Gentilcore. He’s got a point. […]

    November 30, 2013 at 12:50 am | Reply to this comment

  • Nick

    Your sort of "I prefer a plank-on-roids" approach reminded me of a video I caught on Dmitry Klokov's youtube. A training partner of his laid belly down across a flat bench and had people put 25 kilo plates on his upper back and behind his knees, then held a perfectly straight position for time. Plank on roids indeed.

    November 30, 2013 at 11:16 am | Reply to this comment

  • Paul

    Good article Tony. One thing to add. The original question fails to take into account that the Stir the pot is not a 100 % unstable surface exercise because your feet are still on the ground. So you can`t really compare the two to begin with. :P

    November 30, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    What did that ball do to you? Savage boy. Great post. As alwys you make a lot of valid points. I do use them for variety and not just for balance and stability. I get clients to lift them. I remember a trainer at my gym cueing a difficult stability ball exercise. His advice was "don't fall off." Priceless.

    December 1, 2013 at 10:31 am | Reply to this comment

  • Week in Review 12/6/13 | Lang Athletics

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  • Darren Beattie

    Wasn't another loose conclusion from Cressey's book (It's been a while since I read it) that unstable surface training actually seemed to have a lot more applicability to upper body stability training anyway? i.e. A plank on a stability ball seems to have great transfer to other aspects of training than standing on one?

    December 6, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Reply to this comment


    […] 3.  Where Does Unstable Surface Training Fit In?:  This isn’t a new piece, but one worth reading nonetheless.  For some reason the whole unstable surface training thing got blown way out of proportion, and I think Tony does a good job discussing the issue. […]

    December 17, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Matthew Woodard

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves. The way it makes sense to me is - is it an unstable surface or an unstable implement? Is the unstable object manipulating you? Or are you manipulating it? In both questions, the former is less effective (at best) and harmful at worst. Think bosus, etc under your feet. The latter - magic happens. Think sandbags, kbs, slosh pipes, etc. After all, that is what we do in real life and sports. Stir the pot, your feet are anchored while your upper torso controls the object.

    October 13, 2014 at 9:44 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Paul Bruce

      Definitely! Your upper body is handling implements freely suspended in space, while your lower body is planted on the ground. I'm a big fan of single-leg work to improve stability and coordination, and because most athletic actions occur on one leg. But when you're fighting an opponent, or drawing an arrow, it's not done on a BOSU ball - it's done on solid ground. Perhaps UST for upper body training (and core training, in which the UPPER extremities are on an unstable surface) is transferable to sport and practice, while UST for the lower body isn't.

      February 18, 2015 at 10:55 pm | Reply to this comment

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